Friday, November 9, 2012

South Street Seaport Tries to Dry Out

Cultural organizations typically seek contributions with cocktail parties for donors and dinners for prospective trustees. There is no time for such niceties these days at the South Street Seaport Museum, which was deluged by the storm that upended much of New York. The water surged to nine feet, wiping out the building’s electrical systems and destroying its cafe, admission desk, computer system and gift shop. The surrounding seaport, a tourist hub of restaurants and retail stores, is also a mess, with silt wedged between the cobblestones and many storefronts boarded up.

“Hurricane Sandy has dealt us a body blow,” Susan Henshaw Jones, the museum’s president, said in a letter to supporters just days after the storm. “Please send whatever you can!”

The water surged to nine feet at the lobby entrance, wiping out the building’s electrical systems and destroying its cafe, admission desk, computer system and gift shop.

“South Street itself was running like a river,” said the museum’s waterfront director, Capt. Jonathan Boulware who stayed in the museum’s Fulton Street building on the night of the storm as it carried “debris and signs and barricades and pieces of timber and in some cases vehicles along.”

South Street Seaport is hardly alone as an arts organization that is reeling from the hurricane; 3LD Art & Technology Center, an art and performance space on Greenwich Street in Lower Manhattan was flooded, for example, along with art studios in Red Hook and art galleries in Dumbo, in Brooklyn.

The damage suffered by 57 nonprofit theaters added up to more than $800,000, according to a survey by the Alliance of Resident Theaters/New York.

A gallery run by the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition in Red Hook saw its 8,500-square-foot main floor decimated. "We did not expect five feet of water to wash through the whole gallery," said John Strohbeen, the coalition’s president. "It had taken us years to build it up. Now we’re trying to put it all back together again."

But the timing was especially rough for the seaport museum. Having been rescued last year by the Museum of the City of New York after a decade of economic struggle, the institution was just beginning to get back on its feet.

Last January the museum reopened after being closed for almost a year for the expansion and updating of its galleries. The number of visitors has reached 100,000 since January.

But the clock is running. A $2 million grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation gave City Museum up to 18 months to see if it could make a go of the seaport museum. Counting a six-month extension, that interim period expires in April.

The storm would seem like a good excuse as any for the City Museum to wash its hands of the project, whose financial challenges include a decade of back rent and utilities payments owed to the city’s Economic Development Corporation and the cost of maintaining a fleet of 11 antique vessels.

The ships, it turned out, did surprisingly well in the storm, officials said, as the museum prepared by lengthening mooring lines so that the vessels could rise and fall with the surge.

Still, the damage elsewhere is substantial. Ms. Jones said she couldn’t yet estimate the total cost, except to say that replacing the electrical system will run in the millions of dollars. The system, which includes the museum’s escalator, elevators, heating and air conditioning, must not only be replaced but also be relocated to a higher floor to avoid damage in another flood.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Captain Boulware, one of three staff members who stayed overnight in the storm. “The speed with which the water came — we could watch the water rising on the pilings, on the railings. There were breaking waves running across the pier.”

The repair work is likely to take months, but Ms. Jones said she hoped to reopen around Thanksgiving and run the museum on generators.

Unclear is how quickly the museum’s rental tenants, which include the Josh Bach men’s clothing store on Fulton Street and Skipper’s outdoor restaurant on Pier 16, will be able to reopen after extensive damage, Ms. Jones said.

At Bowne & Company Stationers (founded 1775), a printing shop that is part of the museum, more than 200 drawers of antique wood and metal type were drenched. The drying efforts of volunteers were slowed by the lack of power in this stretch of downtown, which was just restored at the end of last week.

School groups, a typically solid source of income, will be slow to return, given the classroom time lost because of the storm.

Kate D. Levin, the New York City cultural affairs commissioner, said that before the storm the museum’s progress had been impressive. She mentioned in particular what had been the museum’s current exhibition organized by the American Folk Art Museum, which explores Lower Manhattan’s history as a seaport and mercantile center; none of the objects on display were damaged in the storm. Now the job is to get back on track, she said.

“Everybody wants to try and keep going on the commitment we’ve made to a vibrant museum there,” Ms. Levin said.

Ms. Jones has been running both institutions simultaneously — an effort complicated by the storm. Each day she heads downtown to Fulton Street from the City Museum on Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street. “It was a hard balancing act,” she said, “but it got tougher.”

Under Ms. Jones the Seaport Museum has balanced its $4.5 million operating budget, mended some of its ships and raised its visibility. Two fund-raisers over the last year exceeded projections. The first, on the occasion of the museum’s 45th anniversary in May, brought in $250,000, the second, a celebration of “Moby-Dick” in October, $90,000.

During a tour of the museum last week Ms. Jones pointed out how high the water, laced with oil, had reached on the wall of the museum’s lobby. She acknowledged that the way back is expensive: the temporary kerosene heaters alone are costing $7,500 a month. And tourists who do make it to the seaport area these days are coming to see the damage, not an exhibition on New York’s maritime history.

But the museum recently received a temporary generator from the Port Authority. And Ms. Jones’s plea for financial help has so far raised $25,000, with donations ranging between $20 and $2,000.

“We are not in the slightest bit discouraged,” Ms. Jones said, an optimism buoyed she said by the tenacity of her staff and many volunteers. “We want to get back on our feet as fast as we possibly can.”